It's not about the oil. After all, if President Obama really thought that protecting the American shoreline was so important, he wouldn’t have opened up vast new tracts of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast to offshore drilling in the month before Deepwater Horizon blew. Even after the leak, when the President announced a (temporary) moratorium on new offshore drilling, the Minerals Management Service kept approving waivers.
It’s not even about the money. Yes, the costs of cleaning up the Gulf are going to be huge. And the fact that BP won’t put a figure on the company’s possible liability makes the markets nervous—as of course does President Obama’s public quest for “whose ass to kick.” But as the Financial Times helpfully points out, BP’s current total cleanup costs of $1.25 billion is only a fraction of the company’s $10.5 billion dividend pot; even if the cleanup and damages ends up costing the company $20 billion, that would still be less than the $25 billion in profits BP made in 2008.
So why has an environmental disaster become a transatlantic political football, in which the US President stokes populist anger while British politicians accuse their American counterparts of “anti-British rhetoric”? Could it be because attacking the hapless Tony Hayward is a lot easier than admitting America’s addiction to oil makes this kind of disaster inevitable? Or that as long was we accept a system in which energy company profits remain in private hands while their losses are socialized, there is very little incentive for BP or any energy company to spend the money to make such accidents less likely? And as Christopher Hayes points out, the American criminal justice system is the most punitive of any industrialized nation—except when it comes to corporate malfeasance.
As for the British money manager who complained that Obama “had his boot on the throat of British pensioners,” surely a better target would have been his fellow fund managers who chose to invest in BP without paying sufficient attention to the company's spotty safety record. Here, too, though, it might be worth pointing out that while British pensioners might indeed suffer if the collapse in BP’s share price continues, none of them ever got a penny from the company’s billions in profit. Once again only the losses are socialized.
But there is one more factor to consider in gauging the temperature of this transatlantic face-off. Though many Americans will be elsewhere tomorrow afternoon, here in England, where it will be evening, millions of people will be glued to the television watching the World Cup. Even in our leafy and liberal corner of North London the red and white cross of St. George can be seen flying from houses, car antennas and in in pub windows. And just who stands between England and glory in the first match? Team USA of course. So for the next 24 hours, beating up on Americans is a popular move for any politician here. After that, if England (who are favored) win, you can expect the rhetorical temperature to cool off. Of course if England lose, there may be calls for BP to open up a few more wells…